If not, what if the disability is only psychiatric in nature?
And if not, how would the prospective tenant be able to prove to the landlord that his dog is for his disability?
If your lease prohibits pets (and many of them do) a landlord can initially refuse to allow a tenant to get a pet. Note that I said initially. If you are disabled and you need a service animal to provide service or emotional support, you have the right to ask your landlord to allow a pet in the premises regardless of the language in the lease. A service animal is not a pet.
A guide dog for a blind person is a classic service animal. A landlord who refused a request for such an animal is clearly discriminating against the tenant based upon disability.
A request to allow an emotional support animal is a little more tricky, but your rights are still clearly defined under the law.
Asking your landlord to add a pet based upon your disability is called a request for a reasonable accommodation. Your request must be reasonable. For example, you cannot request that the landlord, to accommodate your disability, purchase Malachy, the pekinese best in show winner at this year’s Westminster Kennel Club dog show and add him to your lease. That would be unreasonable.
It might also be unreasonable to get a big, untrained, vicious dog because the landlord could be liable if the dog bit someone in the building.
You must also be prepared to prove to the landlord that you are disabled within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
If your disability is psychiatric your are absolutely entitled to request a reasonable accommodation that could include owning a service animal.
The Bazelon site is the “go to” resource for any questions about the law pertaining to mental disability and your rights under the various laws that prohibit discrimination based upon mental disability.
Usually you can get a letter from your treating doctor describing your disability and that having a pet would mitigate your, say, your anxiety disorder. The Bazelon link above provides a sample doctor’s letter that briefly describes the patient’s mental disability and “prescribes” a pet to provide some alleviation of the symptoms.
If you are planning to request a reasonable accommodation to get a companion animal, you should also check out PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support). In San Francisco they are now a division of the Shanti Project . Their site provides a step-by-step procedure to request a reasonable accommodation to get a support animal. The PAWS suggestions about a health provider’s letter are simple, accurate descriptions of the legal requirements for such a letter:
In order to prove that a dog is a service or support animal, you may be asked to have documentation from a licensed professional (doctor, nurse practitioner, psychiatrist, other mental-health professional or social worker) stating that the animal is an essential part of treatment for a disability. A doctor’s letter must have two essential components.
1. It must state that you have a disability. The disability does not need to be identified. 2. It must state that it is the professional opinion of the provider that is it essential for you to have a service/support animal.
From my point of view, the biggest mistake a tenant can make is getting a pet first and then attempting to justify the need for the animal later–after the landlord, during his annual, unannounced, illegal inspection, discovers Fluffy hiding in a closet.
If your lease prohibits pets, ask first, in writing. If your landlord accepts your request, get it in writing. If your landlord refuses and you can demonstrate your need based on disability, go through the steps as outlined above.
If you are not disabled and your landlord refuses your request, forget it. I’ve seen too many instances in which long-term tenants are forced to choose between their beloved dog and living in the streets.
As I noted in my comments in the SF Appeal, I answered the question assuming that the reader already lived in her apartment.
Indeed a request for reasonable accommodation before one leases an apartment will be considerably more difficult. If prospective tenant applies to rent an apartment in “no pets” building, discloses his or her disability and asks for a reasonable accommodation to have a service animal, a landlord could simply refuse to rent based upon other criteria.
It might be difficult and expensive to prove that the landlord discriminated against the tenant based upon his or her disability.
If you suspect that a landlord has rejected your application to rent because you are disabled, you should file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.